Charlie Murphy has died. He was 57. The older brother of writer/comedian Eddie Murphy, Charlie appeared in dozens of films, often working with his brother. He has co-writes on a couple of scripts with Eddie but his writing credits extend out to a film called Paper Soldiers, to sketch-comedy and the world of rap music where he worked as both songwriter and executive producer. He appeared on TV shows (Black Jesus), wrote a memoir and worked the circuit as a stand-up comedian.
For many his best-known “second act” was riffing on his time as part of his brother’s entourage for a series of skits on Chappelle’s Show. The brainchild of comedian Dave Chappelle, Murphy was scene-stealing with his “True Hollywood Stories” takes on Prince and Rick James, drawn from personal experiences to create a great blurring of real-world comedy and fiction. Murphy appeared in other sketches and was a credited writer on the show but those ‘bits’ where he got to really shine, brilliantly so, given the set-up was around him as a background player.
I spoke to Charlie Murphy for half an hour on the phone once. An interview. He was doing a show in Auckland and I scored one of the spots to talk to him as part of the promo. I didn’t end up writing it down – a shame, but I didn’t quite have the appropriate platform at the time. And I regret not committing it to paper, not adding it to a screen somewhere. I’ve carried a lot of that interview around with me to this day – I think about it often.
Murphy didn’t – of course – want to focus on his Chappelle’s Show work. That was old hat, well over a decade old, he was fascinated to know of its reverence in New Zealand though; he opened up to a discussion of those famous skits eventually. And he started to chuckle that warm, rich, exaggerated-sounding laugh as he recalled the writing of those brilliant yarns.
But it was when he went deep on his childhood and a stint in the military that things got interesting. He was simply one of the best storytellers I have ever had the chance to be connected to – fleetingly, sure. But it resonated. It’s stuck with me. He talked about caring for his wife, losing her to cancer. The same cruel disease that has ended his life. He was in tears as he paid tribute to the love of his life. The entire phone conversation was an emotional rollercoaster.
I was watching Charlie Murphy before I was even aware of him – because I was such an Eddie Murphy fan. And there he was in the background or at his brother’s side. Then I found out who he was. The Chappelle’s Show material was crucial – introducing that to people ahead of YouTube, re-playing it over and again…
And then there I was a few years on from that talking to him on the phone. I was panicked to get the baby down to sleep ahead of the phone call. I moved around the house to get a place to talk, free from the nursery grizzling. And then we found our spot, Murphy opening up about all of the pain in his life, dissecting that classic trope, that comedians have heartbreak and loss in their lives, have unhappiness to draw on, to work from. He piled up the examples, found a way to laugh through some of them. Was thoughtful and wise; thoroughly fascinating across the full half-hour.
I cherish that along with the very best of his work.
R.I.P. Charlie Murphy